... And Another from '96

Three years ago, national attention -- and the ire of family advocacy groups -- focused on a Houston family court in the custody fight over two boys ("In the Child's Best Interests," by Bonnie Gangelhoff, January 18, 1996). That battle finally ended September1, in the tiny north Texas hamlet of Seymour. Game warden Donnie Fitts and his wife, DeAnne, legally adopted Justin and Jacob, ages six and seven.

The Fittses thought they had accomplished that back in October 1993, when they first began caring for the children. Instead, the couple walked into a legal mess that made its way into the court of state District Judge Bill Henderson in Houston.

"We knew we were right all along," said Fitts attorney Ellen Yarrell. "It was just a shame that the Fitts family had to go through all of those hoops before the boys could become their sons."

The boys' natural mother, Brandi Baker, put them up for adoption, but she failed to tell the adoption agency there already was a divorce action pending against her husband, Brendon, an ex-convict who could not be found to be notified of the adoption plans. Both natural parents, and both of their mothers, challenged the adoption, although only Brendon Baker pursued his claim to trial.

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In November 1995, a jury in Henderson's court found that Baker should have his parental rights terminated because he had endangered and abandoned the boys.

Then came the shocker. Henderson threw out the jury verdict, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing by Baker. That clouded the future for the boys, who remained with the Fitts family during a lengthy appeal.

Last May, the First Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke of Henderson. ("His knuckles got severely rapped," says lawyer Yarrell.) Justices cited trial testimony: Baker attacked his wife during her second pregnancy; he threatened to kill her and the children; he bashed her car windows out with a baseball bat; he used cocaine and marijuana extensively; and he had six criminal convictions and at least two parole revocations.

Justices reversed the trial judge's ruling and ordered that Baker's parental rights be terminated. The Fittses were then free to adopt the boys.

Judge Henderson had his own problems later. A federal jury found him guilty of bankruptcy fraud. That conviction was overturned last year, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor contempt charge. He did not seek re-election in November. (George Flynn


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